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THE ELIZABETHAN AGE OF ENGLISH LETTERS
SHORTLY after the death of Chaucer, in 1400, we enter upon one of those periods of reaction common to every developing literature, and which it is not contradictory to say are an indirect proof, at least, that it is developing. Standing at the tomb of Chaucer, we seem to be standing at the tomb of English poetry. The earlier centuries, from Cædmon onward, were speedily succeeded by the disastrous invasions of the Danes, and by the disturbing influences of the Norman Conquest. After the close of the Old English "Chronicle," in ́ 1154, and, with it, the close of the Old English literary era, the original poetic spirit was some-what revived in Layamon's "Brut," in the Middle English era, but its expression was partial and temporary. Chaucer was the main factor in making the fourteenth century what it is in English letters, and thus definitely distinguished it from that which immediately preceded and followed it. For a century and a half, literature may be said to have been in abeyance until it began to show signs of awakening in the days of Caxton and through
his personal agency as a printer and an author. From the death of Chaucer to the birth of Spenser, we look in vain for any high degree of literary art or for anything like an unbroken continuity of acceptable literary product. Of that portion of it which included the century from Henry the Fourth to Henry the Seventh, we may safely assert, with Morley, that "it has not bred for us a single writer of the foremost rank." This is especially true of English verse, in that English prose had some approximately worthy exponents in Fortescue, Caxton, and Malory, representing, respectively, political prose, translation, and romance; the appearance of the Paston Letters, in the fifteenth century, affording the first creditable illustration of English epistolary writing. In the long list of indifferent poets, even the most charitable critic can pause but a moment to cite the names of Occleve, Lydgate, Skelton, Hawes, and the Scottish Dunbar, and James the First.
The half century between Henry the Eighth and Elizabeth is a brighter era, and yet more significant as an era of promise and preparation than as one of actual literary achievement. The generous critic need not tarry long, as he scans the roll of authors, noting the names of Heywood and